Church History in the News

The primary goal of the CHEF network is to be a blessing to “regular folks” by enriching their knowledge and appreciation of the history of Christianity.  One of the ways that I hope to accomplish this goal is by highlighting news items that feature elements of church history.

Sometimes the news media illuminates a forgotten corner of church history; other times they remind us of a familiar episode; and other times they just get something plain wrong.  As a result, these posts will have different tones to them, depending on the situation.  My hope is that these will be educational and, as appropriate, entertaining.

See you in the news!

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In the News: Lutherans in the Baltic States

Church history makes the news again!  This week it’s another story from Deutsche Welle, this one about the Lutheran church in the Baltic states (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia).  The story concerns the lives of these churches under Tsarist Russia, the Soviet regime, and now the “new” Russia.  You can read the story at this link.

You may be surprised to hear of Lutherans in a place we typically associate with Russia or the Soviet Union rather than in Germany or Scandinavia; in fact, though, there’s a long history of German-heritage folks in that area (see this link for more), hence the presence of Lutherans!  In fact, when my wife and I lived in western Germany for a year, our apartment was in a building that had formerly been a boarding school for Latvians who had come to Germany to be educated, so there’s definitely a long history of association between the two regions.

On the church history side, though, this news story does a nice job of tracing the recent events, so I won’t elaborate.  I’ll just say that, if you want to learn more about Protestant groups in this area specifically, you can consult this link (a short encyclopedia article on the topic) or this link (a scan of a much longer book chapter).

Image credit: Alma Pater, from the original article, cropped here and in the thumbnail by the blogger

In the News: Cistercian Monks

Last week I read a story on Deutsche Welle (an English-language news provider from Germany) about a Cistercian monastery in western Germany that is having to close its doors due to declining numbers of monks; you can read the story at this link.  We here in the USA are used to the idea of institutions having to close for these reasons, as in the case of churches that are dying off after a few generations.  But in this case, the monastery was NINE HUNDRED YEARS OLD!  It was part of the Cistercian movement (see their Wikipedia article at this link), the second major reform movement in the Benedictine tradition.  The most famous early Cistercian, Bernard of Clairvaux, abbot of the third monastery established in the movement, was responsible for a lot of its expansion, including the monastery in Germany about whom the original story was written.  Other famous monasteries that developed through his influence include Tintern Abbey in Wales, and Fountains and Rievaulx in Yorkshire.  It’s a spiritual tradition within the Catholic branch of Christianity that keeps on doing its thing, even if it is declining in some places.

Image credit: Langec – Own work, CC BY 2.0, (cropped by the blogger)

In the News: Coptic Christians

As many of you know, there has been a migration of many Christians from the Middle East to the West, including both the United Kingdom (Great Britain) and the United States.  I have already written about some of these Christians in this post, but now they have made the news again, this time in a recent story about Christians from Egypt.  We call these Christians “Copts” or “Coptic Christians,” from the Greek name for Egypt.  The story in question can be viewed at this link; it was originally written by Brett Sholtis and published in the York Daily Record, part of the USAToday network of newspapers.

The Coptic church happens to be one with which I have great affinity; my master’s thesis dealt with the text of the book of Romans in one dialect of the Coptic language, I studied the Coptic liturgy for a doctoral seminar at Notre Dame, I wrote my dissertation on Cyril of Alexandria (perhaps the most beloved saint in the Coptic community), and I have attended services in Coptic churches in both Illinois and Texas.  This article is a nice introduction to one aspect of their life in the US; you can learn more about their history at this link and about how the breach with the rest of the church happened in the 400s at this link.  Let me know in the comments what you’d like to know more about, and I’ll give or find you some good information.

Image credit: Chris Dunn, York Daily Record (from the original article; cropped by the blogger)

In the News: Doomsday Predictions

It’s late September 2017, and if the subject of a USAToday story is right (see this link), we won’t be here much longer!  Happily, the linked story really does a lot of the “church history” work for me, so I don’t need to provide the background.  The story does not, however, provide the kinds of links that I like to give you, so I’ll give them here in bullet-point form.  Good luck, everyone!

(Update: according to a subsequent story — accessible at this link — the world isn’t actually going to end on the 23rd… but it will end soon.)

I’ll say that I’m always a little mystified by these kinds of things.  I mean, it would be nice to know when Jesus will return, if for no other reason than to “get one’s affairs in order”… but FOUR DIFFERENT BOOKS in the New Testament (all presumably by very different authors, by the way) all say that that day will come “like a thief” — in other words, unexpectedly!  The deeper concern I have, though, is that the Bible isn’t a book written in secret code. Christians believe that God wants to communicate with us, and that God has done so chiefly in Jesus! In fact, John 1:18 says that Jesus has made God known, or more literally, has “exegeted” God.  We treat the Bible as though it is comprehensible in most other areas, but for some reason we sometimes act differently regarding the “end times.”  That’s a story for another day and post, I suppose.

Image credit for Albrecht Dürer’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Wikimedia Commons

In the News: Medieval Church Buildings

Today I watched a brief video on the BBC’s website, accessible at this link (requires Flash).  The video was about the apparently popular phenomenon of camping overnight in medieval church buildings!  The Churches Conservation Trust (see this link) works to protect churches “at risk,” and they do so in a variety of ways, from sponsoring preservation efforts to hosting events at various places.  And perhaps the most unexpected part of their work: helping people camp out in churches! 

Of course, you might be wondering a couple of things: how long have these churches been around, and why are they so empty?  Well, the first question can be answered with this good (but a bit lengthy) summary of English church history, and the second may be understood better through this discussion of and this warning about the decline of Christianity in modern England.  It is a sad story, from the perspective of church history, but there is also hope, as this columnist suggests — not just in people preserving churches, but also in the continued work of new evangelists in the UK.  (Side note: if you want a nice gallery of English church buildings, this site should satiate your desire.)

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In the News: Warrior Monks

Earlier this week, a story about “warrior monks” appeared at this link from the BBC News service.  The story is part of a series about things in history that have helped shape the modern economic system that we are a part of (and, incidentally, that helps keep this site up!).  Specifically, it’s about the Knights Templar, an organization that began as a group to support and defend Crusaders and other Christians in the Holy Land, but that ended up also serving as a de facto banking system.  You might have heard about them through their role in the film National Treasure and the novel The DaVinci Code.  You can read more about the Knights Templar here and here.

Interestingly enough, just a couple of weeks ago I came across another item about “warrior monks,” this time the impressively-named “Livonian Brothers of the Sword.”  Livonia is an area that no longer exists politically but was formerly in the area now occupied by the Baltic states.  However, through much of the last 1,000 years, German-heritage folks have lived there, and this group was comprised of ethnically German warrior monks.  They flourished in the 13th century (again, the time of the Crusades), but their work was evangelistic rather than primarily protective, and it was focused at home rather than in the Holy Land.  They eventually became a part of the German Teutonic Knights, and you can read more about them at their Wikipedia page or at that of the present-day Teutonic Knights.

These days, we tend not to think of “warriors” and “monks” as concepts that go together, but had we lived in the Middle Ages, that would not have seemed odd at all.

UPDATE: Just one month after the original version of this post went out, the Knights Templar showed up in the news AGAIN!  This time, the story in question seems not to actually involve the Knights, but who knows? we might learn more in the coming days.

Image credit: from Walter Thornbury’s 1887 book Old and New London, Illustrated, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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In the News: A Byzantine Tree!

Adonis1OliverKonterWell, last week the Byzantine empire made an unexpected appearance in the national news, courtesy of this story from CNN.  The topic of the story is “Adonis,” a Bosnian pine that is more than 1,000 years old!  Situated as it is near the border between Greece and Albania, the tree would indeed have witnessed the heights of Byzantine glory, as the story indicates.

Now, some of you might be saying, “Wait a minute — didn’t the Arabs and later the Umayyad and Abbasid empires conquer and control a lot of formerly Byzantine territory?  The Empire wasn’t that big in the year 1000 CE!”  And you would be right.  The Byzantine’s empires geographic spread was not at its peak at that point, but the development of “civilization” in Constantinople — including many of the characteristics that we associate with the Byzantines — were certainly in place and active tat that time.

If you want to read more about the Byzantines and their Christianity, you can check out this link, which offers a history of the empire, or this one, which has a lot to say about the religion thereof.

Image credit: (edited by the blogger)

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(Not) In the News: Korea’s Christian Heritage

Flag_of_South_Korea.svgI’m a bit of an Olympic junkie.  Ever since completing a school project on the Olympics back in 4th grade (thanks, Mrs. Gamino!), I’ve loved the modern Olympic ideals: competing for self and country, placing fellowship above results, and pushing oneself ever faster, higher, and stronger.  Today, the Rio Olympics 2016 have just closed, meaning we turn our attention to the next Winter Olympics, to be held in PyeongChang, South Korea.  Since NBC holds the broadcast rights to both the just past and future Olympics, it’s not surprising that their news arm would put out an anticipatory piece in the wake of Rio.

However, I’m calling a minor foul on the piece, because while it brings up religion, it totally ignores South Korea’s Christian heritage, especially its growth in the last 100 years and its tendency toward enormous megachurches.  (You can read more at this summary piece.)  Since I was reading the item as an Olympic story, I was surprised to read the line “They’re certainly praying for success.”  But when I did, I thought, “Wow — they’re going to talk about one of the megachurches in Korea!”  Alas, no: it described a Buddhist temple high up in the mountains.  Sadly, it seems that the writer (whose career has mostly focused in Western Europe and the US) made the mistake that so many of us do: assuming that East Asia is full of folks who practice traditional Asian religion(s).  As it happens, Korea has more Christians than Buddhists… but sadly, there are more “nones” than either of these two groups.  When we take the “nones” out of the equation, we see that Christians make up more than half of those confessing a religion.

So, as you can tell, this news story maybe should have included Christianity — but now you know more about Christianity in Korea than you did before!  And if you want some more contemporary facts, you can check out this Pew Research link.

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In the News: Christianity in Iraq

As most of you know, there has been ongoing, armed conflict in the Middle East, especially in Syria and northern Iraq, for at least five years (not counting the activities in which the U.S. has been involved).  Occasionally, the reports of that conflict includes the Christians who are indigenous to the area, as in this recent story from FoxNews.

Now, on reading it, you might be thinking a couple of things: 1) “There are indigenous Christians in the Middle East?!?”  And 2) “There are Middle Eastern Christians in the US?!?”  The answer to both questions, of course, is “yes,” and I’ve got some resources that can help you learn more about the situation there.  First, if you want a sense of the country-by-country picture in the Middle East, then you can check out this primer from the BBC; granted, it’s a few years old, and so with the situation as it is, the numbers have probably dwindled, as the link associated with the image below suggests.  But still, the resource is good.  Also, if you want more information about the various groups involved, this link from the OrthodoxWiki is a good beginning, and of course you can go from there as you desire.

Coptic Christians at funeral of Pope Shenouda III in Cairo

As far as Middle Eastern Christians in the United States go, the situation is rather diverse.  Not surprisingly, there are high concentrations of Middle Eastern Christians in places where there are a lot of people of Middle Eastern descent.  It may surprise you, though, that the place with the strongest concentration is Dearborn, Michigan.  But, as discussed in the article, California is another hot spot, as are major metropolitan areas like Chicago, New York, etc.  That said, there are whole swaths of the country with no Middle Eastern Christians at all — so if you’re thinking, “I don’t know any folks of this description,” well, you’re not alone.  But you can learn, right?

And never forget — you can Google.  Search for the different groups named in the links above.  Don’t start with what others say about them — read what they say about themselves.  You won’t regret it; these are vibrant communities with a strong sense of their own heritage and, often, their own history.

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In the News: Christians in the 16th-Century Caribbean

Church history has made the news again!  Yesterday this piece appeared in FoxNews, describing the discovery by British and Puerto Rican archaeologists of Christian cave art on the small Caribbean island of Mona.  Given the long history of Amerindian settlement in the Caribbean, it is not surprising that these archaeologists found native wall paintings in the cave.  But what is interesting for us is that they also found Christian wall art, including crosses and Christian inscriptions, as you can see in the FoxNews story.

caribbean wall artNow, as the story says, this discovery does tell us some things about the history of Christianity in the Caribbean… but it doesn’t really say what it tells us.  However, this piece at goes deeper, also providing some really great pictures and reconstructions, not least the signature of a 1530s leader who seems to have “tagged” the cave with his name.  If you want to learn more, I can’t call upon my own expertise, as I’m not an expert in any particular aspect of this story.  But, in terms of online resources, I’d probably start with issue 35 of Christian History magazine.  If I were shopping on Amazon, I’d probably get a hold of something like this book to help me out.

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